Christmas Abbott making waves on pit row

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Christmas Abbott is hearing the exact same criticism that has followed Danica Patrick on the racetrack.

Clue No. 1 Christmas Abbott isn't your typical NASCAR pit crew member: She is the only tire-changer on the planet who has a waiting list for interview requests.

Clue No. 2 Abbott isn't your typical NASCAR pit crew member: Clue No. 1 began with the word "she."

If you've never heard of Abbott, you might want to get out more. Or at least purchase a TV. Since February's Daytona Speedweeks she has been featured on "CBS This Morning," CNN, HBO, NASCAR prerace shows spanning three networks and is on deck for a profile with Hannah Storm for ABC's "Nightline." Her agent is working on a reality TV deal. She also has received mentions on countless websites and in print publications, including a literal you-go-girl in Cosmopolitan and, last fall, a photo feature in the tattooed pages of Inked.

Nearly all of those outlets have touted the 31-year-old as the groundbreaking first female member of a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pit crew. Technically, that's accurate. But in reality, she's not there … yet.

"There have been other women on pit crews," Abbott explained last month at the Martinsville Speedway as she helped prep a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (think Triple-A baseball) team's pit area for that afternoon's race. "But as far as we know, there's never been a woman hired full time, for a full season. That's our goal. So yeah, there's a little hype building up here."

It's more than a little. As she talked, a handful of fans -- mostly girls -- snapped photos of Abbott in uniform as she worked.

"I saw Christmas on TV, so I Googled her," explained Julie Worth, a high school sophomore dressed head-to-toe in Danica Patrick gear, attending the Martinsville race with her parents. "The videos of her doing pit stop practices are amazing. But her workout videos are even more amazing."

Those would be the videos of Abbott at her day job, as a super-rare Level 1 trainer in the sweat-drenched world of CrossFit. That's the intense, borderline insane, workout program where online films of athletes' regimens can be equal parts exhausting and addictive. Abbott became hooked on viewing such videos in the mid-2000s while spending four years as an independent contractor in Iraq. She was in her early 20s, surrounded by war, and admittedly searching for some sort of anchor for her life. She'd felt adrift since a near-deadly car accident at the age of 13, a barrel-rolling crash that left her older sister in a three-day coma and Christmas in a decade-long emotional funk. She finally found her footing in her work overseas, then in CrossFit. Now she's a confident, 5-foot-3, 115-pound chunk of muscle that can clean and jerk 170 pounds, dead lift 255 and owns her own gym, CrossFit Invoke, in Raleigh, N.C.

Video of Abbott's workouts and performances in the CrossFit Games have developed their own audience of devotees. Among those viewers was Ted Bullard, an executive with Turner Motorsports, a race team that competes in NASCAR's Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series. One year ago he invited Abbott to participate in an informal pit crew competition/tryout. Aside from casually watching races with her family back home in Lynchburg, Va., Abbott knew nothing about pit stops. At the Turner shop they set up a station like the ones tire-changers use to practice hitting the five half-dollar sized lugnuts with a handheld pneumatic air gun. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.

A good time for any tire-changer is in the 1.2-second range. Abbott did it in a just a tick over 1.7. Everything that happened next seemed to take place within that missing half-second. Convinced of her potential, Bullard started touting Abbott to teams as a legit prospect. By fall she had moved south from Raleigh to the Charlotte area, hub of the racing world. In mid-February, Michael Waltrip Racing announced it had inked Abbott to a development deal as an "eighth man." Now she can be found working with Truck Series teams on Saturdays and shadowing the MWR Sprint Cup crews on Sundays. During the week she works out with the MWR guys, whom she says have welcomed her "with open arms and open minds." She even took her new coworkers to a local CrossFit gym. Confesses her pit mentor, former minor league hockey player and MWR jackman Shaun Peet, "She kicked our butts."

Jerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports

Nobody is questioning the work ethic of Christmas Abbott, who made a name for herself with surreal CrossFit feats.

Her deal with Waltrip is for this season only. Either she proves she is genuinely on track to become a Cup Series tire-changer or come Thanksgiving she will be looking elsewhere for a job.

In the meantime, there appears to be no slowing the wave of attention that even she admits "gets a little crazy." She wasn't in attendance for last weekend's Truck Series-Sprint Cup All-Star Race doubleheader in Charlotte. Why? Because she was attending the U.S. Naval Academy's Ring Dance with Ben Freedman, who issued a WOD (Workout of the Day) challenge and invite to the dance. She posted a response, challenged him to come to the race shop for a pit crew challenge, and that yes, she would be his date.

Stories like that, really all Christmas Abbott tales, typically create two distinct reactions throughout the NASCAR community. Some love it. They point to her relentless work ethic as proof of her sincerity. And they see value in a quest that could promote the sport in ways no one else could, especially as talk continues to swirl about a reality series documenting her quest.

"Once people know her story, it's impossible not to connect to it," Waltrip says. "That goes for fans, racers and sponsors. We're already seeing that. She already has helped us with sponsors."

Which brings us to the other side of those garage feelings -- the Christmas Abbott skeptics. They write it off as nothing more than a "PR deal." They question if her talent is for real, or if she has been given the benefit of the doubt merely because of her gender. They respect Bullard, now her agent, but know his background is in marketing. They say they are still waiting to see her actually go over the wall and change a tire in competition. And they wonder aloud if Abbott would have been given the opportunities that she has had, especially in such a short amount of time, if she wasn't so attractive.

If it all sounds familiar, it should. It's essentially a carbon copy of the debate that has surrounded Danica Patrick throughout her racing career. The difference is Patrick has a history that she can point to. Abbott does not.

She hears Patrick's name everywhere she goes and in nearly every interview she does. She doesn't resist the comparison, but she doesn't exactly embrace it, either.

"I do hear the criticism, just as I'm sure she does," Abbott explained, standing in the Martinsville Speedway pits. "I just smile it off when I hear it. I know, just like anyone in NASCAR knows, not just women, that if you improve and perform like you should, then that's the best way to silence a critic. It's about putting in the work. And I like to work."

"Speaking of work …" she said, flashing that polite, made-for-TV smile as she snatched up a 60-pound race tire as if it were a sheet of notebook paper, "it's time for me to go do some."

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